I recently read The Usual Path to Publication, a collection of essays edited by Shannon Page, where genre writers share the story of how and why their first novel was published. It has its merits, and if you’re a beginner I recommend buying it. I was interested in each of these stories, too, since my debut novel from a publisher is out this August. But I’m far from a beginner, so I noticed something . . . interesting.
Given the focus, it’s a good, short read. A tad repetitive (so many jokes about Self-Addressed Stamped Envelopes, or when email was dangerous, or how people used to talk on phones!), and the usual oscillations of bad agent stories and fawning over those who made their debuts a success (for a counterpoint, see this horror story), but the enduring lessons, while not stated as such (since these are stand alone essays and not an analysis) can be summed up thusly: “Persevere, newbie, because the night is dark and full of rejection and I’m just telling you the highlights since it takes YEARS, except when it doesn’t, and, yes, networking helps a TON to shave off those years, especially if you’re not a shit to editors and agents at cons, but there are no guarantees, luck happens (but in both directions), and you increase your odds of success by working harder, longer, and making good work and connections, but never forget, life ain’t fair.” And yet for me, one unfortunate and unintended consequence of these kinds of collections is the lasting impression of the writer’s life as a highlight reel . . . despite all the caveats to the contrary.
Structure, rather than intent, plays a hand. The essays must crunch time and tell you to “fast forward” a year, or two, or five, or ten, while publishing did whatever it does outside of their direct influence. That time “in between” statuses (newbie and first published author) is compressed into a handful of details. Thus, by dint of this compression, the impression (even with the caveats) is of something happening quickly. Long stretches of actual time passed quickly on the page. And while I’m a historian, where such compression is critical and subject to intense scrutiny, this reflection made me think of an art form that uses empty space to fill in information far more than prose.
In comic books, we have the panels, where a moment is frozen in time (guy holds cigarette, another hand in his pocket). But we also have the space between them, known as The Gutters. It is in The Gutters where time and space have elapsed before the next static image. It’s in The Gutters, as comic guru Scott McCloud and others have noted, where the magic happens, where the reader’s imagination fills in the blanks between the first (dude holding a cigarette) and the next (he’s taking a drag, and there’s a closed lighter in his other hand). Because of The Gutters, we turn all the frozen images into a narrative that moves in space and times. So, The Gutters are not empty. They are essential.
To push this analogy to the breaking point, The Gutters are where we actually spend most of our time: between moments of significant action that most people want to read about. That year waiting for a response from a short story mag that actually died the day after they sent you a contract? Gutter. The long pause after you harassed a junior editor of a major house in an elevator at GenreCon about your novel (“It’s like the The Aeneid, but with CHICKS in SPACE!”) and they said “uh, sure, send it by snail mail” and did everything in their power not to give you their email address? Gutter. The five years your agent said “I’m just waiting to hear back and can’t call them because that would be rude and ruin the deal they might be working on”? Gutter.
The Gutters are the “flash forwarded” material of existence before the money shots of life (Go ahead, click, it’s for a novel. Get your minds out of the . . . well, you know).
The Gutters are also where we create our work, stuffed with the material we leave out of essays on writing because writing about writing is often boring as shit. And yet, it’s the purest place. It’s the land of Borges infinite libraries and of Howard’s “damndest bastard” Conan, of the microcosm of ambition and power in the creepy world of competitive gymnastics. It’s the land of our imagination unformed. Once it is Out of The Gutter, it assumes its last form before being internalized by the external world.
The Gutters are also filled with day job horrors, relationships, hobbies, boredom, sexy sex, wasting time, making schedules, loved ones and hated enemies, porn and prayer and breakfast bars and long distance phone calls, rent and bills, garbage and new recipes, heartbreak and first kisses, violence and accidents and Christmas, births, deaths and shit you can’t explain. The world in which our hearts and minds operate. The world we internalize with our engines of imagination. That be The Gutters.
You know, BORING STUFF! Nothing to see here! FF the long walk to Mordor and just throw your jewelry in the volcano already!
I like The Gutters, and think we obfuscate their value. After all, getting published is the exception. Not the rule (remember: life ain’t fair). The Gutters are the rule. And this rule ain’t boring.
And I’ll prove it.
Below are ten things that happened in the Gutters, way back in 1999, when I published my first short story “Treasure Chest” to The Lamp Post: Literary Journal of the CS Lewis Society of Southern California for contributor copies that were handmade and side stapled. I had just started my MA in War Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, home of some great writers, including the venerable George Stanley. Yeah, I said it, GEORGE FUCKING STANLEY! I won’t FF to when I signed the contract for THE BRIMSTONE FILES, a short sixteen years in the future. I’m going dive back into The Gutters.
- I came home from Cavalry House (where War Studies students had class without mighty steeds), and found I’d forgotten to lock my door. And forgotten to turn off the light. Two things I never do. I started making dinner, spaghetti from a can as I recall, and then went to go put on music: only to find all of my CDs were gone. And one of my windows was open. My apartment had been broken into. And my brain tried to tell me everything was normal: a pure PKD moment. When the police finally arrived, the officer had zero patience. When I asked if he was okay, he told me he was coming back from a domestic dispute, and that losing my shit was meaningless. He was right.
- I wrote a paper on civil/military relations in the Franco/Prussian War, and focused on the personal letters of Helmut von Moltke (the Elder!). It was the first A I received in Grad School. This is funny because in grade eight, I failed history!
- After a formal Christmas dinner, one of the few times I wore a tie that year, I walked home and got completely lost. I had to take a cab to my place . . . which was one block away.
- One day in winter I walked in subzero temperatures to the college, about a 40 minute stretch. When I entered Cavalry House rogue historian and mentor Sean Maloney looked at me like I was insane. “Ridler, you walked? It’s -40 Celsius without wind chill. Someone is giving him a ride home.”
- That year, I got my first email address, from the Care2 company, because my sister (far more tech savvy) said they were good people. All their links had animal icons. My favorite was an angry tiger with a roar in his mouth who held, between two clawed paws, a present! This was the donate button!
- I made Ray Bradbury’s infamous Pizza Soup (crushed crackers, cheese, and spaghetti sauce, not this modern high-stakes monstrosity). Vile. It explains why Bradbury was a tubby bastard.
- My book collection grew by leaps and bounds because of killer used book stores in Kingston, a college town with tons of bibliophiles. Among my early finds was a signed copy of Harlan Ellison’s PAINGOD at BOOKPEOPLE, signed by the man himself . . . all unbeknownst to the cashier who charged me four bucks.
- Kingston, ON, is the prison capital of the Great White North. My apartment was only four blocks away from the women’s prison and Kingston Penitentiary, the two facilities that once held notorious serial killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Between them was a prison museum I used to visit, where they had collections of material made by the inmates, including a crossbow made of toothbrushes.
- My diet consisted mainly of spaghetti, eggs, and instant mashed potatoes, plus whatever my family would cook me on Sundays. Being poor was awful, but sometimes flavorful.
- I wrote my first completed short story that year, about a dude who worked at an abattoir, suffered from insomnia, and was being communicated to by a comatose alien in a hospital. She could talk to him because he was burning out from the real world and thus could “hear” her (as should be noted, I am a MASTER OF PLOT). It was based on a job interview I’d had at a slaughter house the previous summer when I lived in Toronto. In the offices above the warehouse, the air was sticky. The lady interviewing me was a haggard beauty who, in the din of summer heat, wore pounds of make-up and chain smoked Player’s Unfiltered in her office. She looked at my resume, freshly inked with my BA (Honours) in History, and said “You’re clearly smart, so I’d say you . . . really shouldn’t work here.” In the dead of winter that following year in Kingston, suffering burnout from grad school, I turned that experience into “Slaughter House Sam.” It was awful at Mach 9 in all directions. Two people read it before I said “what a pile of shit,” and then I started again.
Later, I would read Joe Lansdale’s essay “A Hand on the Shoulder” in the Horror Writers Association Handbook on how setting and place can help you refine your voice as an author. Until then, I’d viewed Kingston with the normal big city smugness one gets living in Toronto. But Kingston turned out to be a fascinating, dark, weird city. You just had to look at it the right way. Once I did, my writing voice started to shift.
My “debut”* as a novelist is a roughly a year away. By the mandate of Page’s book and my rather strained analogy, I’m still in The Gutters. So I can’t fast forward into the future to give you relief. Instead, I’m going to drag you through the stuff you usually fast forward, cut out, or ignore until the book is released.
Because you know what’s in The Gutters?
Everything that matters.